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Wednesday
Dec192012

Gun violence: the economics of abolition

There's lots of talk about America needing to step up on gun control. I suspect that for a lot of people, this is a disguised way of talk about abolition -- that is, the elimination of the private ownership of guns of any sort. 

If so, that's fine. It is certainly worth putting that option on the table and airing it. I doubt it would go anywhere, not in Canada, and not in the USA. But imagine for the sake of argument a government passed a bill outlawing private ownership of guns: it would still be faced with the problem that there are a lot of guns in the country. Stats I've seen vary, with estimates between 250 million and 310 million private weapons on the USA. 

If you wanted to take these off the street through a buyback, what would it cost? Again, buyback programs vary. $200 for a handgun is common, with some programs offering as low as $20 for a rifle. Some programs I've seen have offered $100 gift cards to places like Target. But these are voluntary buybacks, taken advantage of by people who either want to go clean, or have guns they no longer want. A forced buyback program would be far more expensive. 

Assume you wanted to take 280 million guns off the street, at an average buyback price of $200.  Total cost would be $56 billion dollars. (That's probably low, but it's a ballpark).

Would it be worth it? 

[Note: I fixed the math in the next graph thanks to Andrew Coyne's heads up]

Last year in the US, there were 11500 homicides caused by guns. The actuarial value of a human life is $7.4 million. Multiply that, and you have a savings of $85.1 billion, in one year. 85.1-56 is a net savings, minus the buyback costs, is 29.1 billion, call it $30 billion in savings in the first year. But that's not a one-off -- that's $85.1 billion a year after that, every year, compounded. (I think. I forget how to calculate these sorts of things). 

There would be other benefits: lots of people are wounded by guns, so their health care costs and associated other costs would be eliminated as well. But there would be costs as well: it would be foolish to suppose that private gun ownership is a 100% deadweight loss to the economy. 

At any rate, the upshot is that the American government could, if it wanted, easily afford to pay for gun abolition, and it would more than pay for itself in about 8 months.